Sina Technology News, Beijing time on December 25th, according to foreign media reports, when it comes to the technology of interconnecting the world, semiconductor chips play a major role. But how did this little chip get into every part of our lives?
From the city that never sleeps to the remote countryside, a technology is changing the way we live and work. From the smartphone in your pocket to the vast data center that powers the Internet, from electric scooters to supersonic planes, from pacemakers to supercomputers that predict the weather, all these devices, whether invisible or lesser-known, may Inside the facility, there’s a tiny piece of technology that makes it all possible: semiconductors.
Semiconductors are a fundamental building block of modern computing. Semiconductor devices called transistors are tiny Electronic switches that run calculations inside a computer. In 1947, American scientists built the world’s first transistor. Before that, people used vacuum tubes to complete the computer mechanism. But vacuum-tube computers were slow and cumbersome. Until the application of silicon, everything changed.
Transistors made of silicon, small enough to fit on microchips, opened the door to a whole new world of devices. Every year, these devices are getting smaller and smarter. “The ability to miniaturize transistors allows us to do things no one could have imagined,” said John Nover, CEO of the Semiconductor Industry Association. “And all because we can put a large computer on a tiny chip. superior.”
The pace of innovation is also unprecedented. Chips started getting smaller and smaller at a steady rate, as if the technology had a rhythm to follow. About fifty years ago, Gordon Moore, co-founder of chip-making giant Intel, first proposed this law, which later became known as Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law predicts that the number of transistors that can fit on a chip will double about every two years.
It turns out that Moore’s Law used to be true. Until recently, things started to change. The pace of chip miniaturization has only slowed as repeated efforts to shrink transistors have gotten closer to their physical limits. Early transistors were visible to the naked eye. Today, billions of tiny transistors can fit on a single microchip. Most importantly, this exponential advancement in manufacturing has driven the digital revolution to happen.
But silicon, the core element of this great revolution, has always been an inconspicuous substance and one of the most common substances on earth. 90% of the minerals in the earth’s crust contain silicon. It’s really interesting that one of the most ubiquitous substances on earth has brought about a technology that spreads across the globe.
Silicon is the foundation of the $500 billion chip industry. The industry has driven the development of the global technology economy. Today, the global tech economy is worth about $3 trillion. The semiconductor industry has also become one of the most globalized in history: raw materials come from Japan and Mexico, and chips are made in the United States and China. These chips are then shipped around the world to be installed on devices. In the end, the device comes into the hands of people in every country of the world.
“Silicon, as the basis of a chip, probably travels around the world two or three times,” says Nover. But even with such a large global network, we can trace its origins to a few important places.
High-end electronic products also have extremely high requirements for material quality. The purest silicon comes from quartzite, and the purest quartzite comes from a quarry near Spruce Pine, North Carolina, USA. Millions of digital devices around the world—even the phone in your hand or the laptop on your desk—are so connected to this small North Carolina town. “It’s really impressive to think that you can see quartz from Spruce Pine on chips in almost every cell phone and computer,” said Rove Peibert, mining experience at Quartz Corp, a supplier of high-quality quartz. Incredible.”
The rocks near Spruce Pine are quite special. The region is high in silica, a silicon-containing compound, and low in impurities. Gems and mica have been mined here for centuries. But once, no one cares about the quartz dug up. After the rise of the semiconductor industry in the 1980s, quartz was transformed into white gold.
Quartz now sells for as much as $10,000 per ton. Spruce Pine’s mining industry can generate up to $300 million in annual revenue. Rock extracted from the ground with machines and explosives is put into a crusher to produce quartz grit. The quartz grit is then sent to a processing plant where it is ground into fine sand. Finally, water and chemicals are added to the fine sand to separate the silicon from other minerals. The extracted silicon goes through a final grinding step before being bagged as a powder and sent to a refinery.
Although there are billions of microchips around the world, only about 30,000 tons of silicon are mined each year, which is not even as much as the construction sand produced every hour in the United States. “The silicon reserves in Spruce Pine are very large,” Peibert said. “It can continue to be mined for decades. Maybe, before we run out of quartz, the whole industry has changed.”
To turn silicon powder into chips, it is necessary to put silicon material into a furnace with a high temperature of 1400 ° C for melting, and make a cylindrical crystal rod. Then, like cucumbers, the ingots are sliced into thin slices to obtain wafers. Finally, in a factory (like Global Foundries in New York State), a dozen rectangular circuits—that is, the chips themselves—are printed onto each wafer. From here, the chips will be scattered to all corners of the world.
“We’re essentially a printing press, printing whatever electronics they want to make for companies,” said Chris Belfi, a clean room engineer at Global Foundries.
Because the chips are so tiny, any dust particles or strands of hair could potentially disrupt the chip’s complex circuitry. To prevent contamination of microelectronics, the entire workshop must be sterile and dust-free. The area, about the size of six football fields, is thousands of times cleaner than an operating room, and is lit with dim yellow lights to prevent UV radiation from damaging some of the chemicals used in the production process. Lab employees and engineering technicians wear bizarre protective clothing, wrapped head-to-toe in white safety suits, with masks and goggles slicked on before they get to work.
In sterile rooms, most operations are performed automatically by vacuum-sealed robots. A single track suspended from the roof carries components between the robots. The fabrication of each chip can take anywhere from 1,000 to 2,000 steps, depending on the design.
The blank wafers that flow into the factory floor cost hundreds of dollars each. Once out of the shop, these wafers will be printed with billions of transistors. At this time, their worth will be more than 100 times their original value. Most of the chips made by Global Foundries are used in smartphones or hardware called GPUs. Video games, artificial intelligence, and mining cryptocurrencies all require GPUs. Connected devices, from fitness trackers to smart refrigerators and smart speakers, also known as the “Internet of Things”, are another emerging line of end devices. “People want to connect more and more things all the time, all the time,” Belfi said.
In the next stage, these fabricated wafers are sent to electronics manufacturers, usually located overseas. “I am very proud to contribute to the interconnection of people around the world,” said Isabel Frain, Director of Central Engineering at Global Foundries. “Whenever I see the electronic devices we use every day, I think of us technology being researched.”
Semiconductors are the fourth-largest U.S. export, after planes, cars and oil. Most of the revenue is used to develop new products, making the semiconductor industry, like the pharmaceutical industry, a top research-intensive industry. “We’re changing the industry, and this industry is going to change the world,” Frain said.
With semiconductors getting smaller and cheaper, semiconductor products are now available to almost everyone. It is estimated that more than 5 billion people worldwide own a mobile device, more than half of which are smartphones. Developing countries are also catching up.
Research ICT Africa is a think tank focused on technology policy. In Africa, 15 percent of the population aged 15 and over used the Internet in 2007; a decade later, in 2017, that number had grown to 28 percent, according to the think tank. Today, about two in ten Africans own a smartphone. “This is largely due to the rapid spread of cheap internet-connected devices,” said Anri van der Spui of Research ICT Africa.
This means that the impact of these technologies can be felt even in most remote rural areas. Nanyuki is a market town in the East African country of Kenya. Take Douglas Wangara, a small-town farmer who now uses his smartphone to find buyers for his crops. “The phone has made my job easier,” he said.
There is a river beside their house. Wangara and his wife Gladys make a living growing corn and potatoes on a field near the river. Before owning a smartphone, Wangara’s only way to sell his produce was to take them to the market. If he can’t sell it, the produce will go bad and he will lose money. Mobile technology can help him address this risk. By sharing photos of his crops with potential buyers, he can close deals before corn or potatoes are ripe. When it’s harvest time, buyers will come and pick up the produce themselves, instead of waiting for Wangara to bring the produce to the market. This allows buyers to harvest fresh produce. Wangara said it was difficult for him to market his crops before smartphones.
Wangara bought himself a mobile phone for about 15,000 Kenyan shillings as a business investment. In addition to contacting buyers, he uses his phone to keep up with information crucial to running the farm, such as the latest weather forecast and market prices for different crops. Better access to this type of information is an effective way to ensure long-term food security in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia, according to research by Fiona van der Boggart of the global climate group Weather Impact. Getting accurate weather information can help farmers determine what croupiers should be planted and when.
However, to get mobile data, Wangara needs to head to a nearby Wifi hotspot. This Wifi hotspot is in a modified shipping container. Outside the city, hotspots like this are the lifeblood of local communities. In many countries, there is still a large disparity in the level of Internet access between urban and rural areas. But research by researchers at the University of Bonn in Germany shows a promising trajectory in sub-Saharan Africa, where farmers in Kenya are actively at the forefront of using mobile technology to boost their livelihoods.
According to Research ICT Africa, Kenya has the third highest internet usage rate in Africa, with 24% of the Kenyan population having access to the internet. But other countries are still far behind. In Rwanda, for example, only 9% of the population has access to the Internet, the lowest rate of Internet usage on the African continent. Of the 9 percent of the online population, 77 percent live in cities.
We need to be vigilant that this digital divide doesn’t make people’s lives worse, says van der Spuy. “Access to the Internet is now a prerequisite for participation in society,” she said. More and more things are being done online, such as receiving social benefits, finding a job or going to school for your children. In addition, this digital divide does not only exist between urban and rural areas. Rich people are more likely to use the Internet than poor people, men are more likely to use the Internet than women, and young people are more likely to use the Internet than older people. “If you don’t have access to the Internet, you risk being abandoned.”
These gaps should gradually narrow as semiconductor technology continues to advance and more and more people begin to learn digital technologies. Smartphones can even boost a country’s overall economy. One study estimates that in developing countries, every 10 additional mobile phones per 100 people can increase GDP by 0.5%.
Few technologies can change the lives of so many people. It’s very exciting just to think about how we’ve turned simple and pure quartz sand into an almost infinitely complex technology, and using this technology to connect people today, says Nover.